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  • Nate Scharping

Creepy Music and Soviet Spycraft: The Amazing Life of Leon Theremin

The godfather of electronic music was also a darling of the New York social scene, a gulag prisoner and the man behind one of the most ingenious spy devices ever created.

Imagine a UFO descending from the heavens, its round disk pale against the night sky. What sound does it make? You’re likely imagining a keening whine in your head, like the howling of a haunted wind or the moans of a high-pitched ghost.


That’s the sound of the theremin, a musical instrument invented nearly a century ago. It was one of the first electronic musical instruments, and the first to be mass-produced. The theremin’s ethereal tones made it ubiquitous in science fiction film scores during the middle of the 20th century.


But the curious instrument was actually invented decades earlier, in 1920, by a Russian scientist named Lev Sergeyevich Termen. As a young man working at the Physical Technical Institute in Petrograd, he noticed that something odd happened when he hooked up audio circuits to an electrical device called an oscillator in a certain configuration. The oscillator produced an audible tone when he held his hands near it, and he could shift the tone just by waving his hands back and forth.


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